Friday evening's most enjoyable production of Johann Strauss Jr.'s classic operetta, Die Fledermaus — the first of a four-performance run — turned out to be a delightful affair, marking a new emphasis on opera training and performance at the College of Charleston.
The school's fresh attention to opera is by design. The School of the Arts added David Templeton to its distinguished faculty just this year, as director of opera. And he's already making a difference. There are plenty of gifted singers at the college, given the school's robust vocal and choral programs. If this production is any indication, Templeton is already leading them in some interesting new directions. I'm told he's also an exceptional baritone. I'm looking forward to hearing him in an upcoming CSO concert.
Die Fledermaus and I go way back: I first saw it as a wonder-struck boy of twelve in Vienna, the operetta's hometown. I've since seen several productions in places like Munich and Washington, D.C. But despite the glitz and glamor that a real opera house (with established singers and an orchestra in the pit) have brought to the piece, I found the college's production to be quite spirited, accomplished, and entertaining. It was the second time I've heard it done in English.
Sure, this production's "orchestra" was a mere piano — but they were blessed to have Irina Pevzner at the keyboard. She's one of Chucktown's most versatile and hardest-working pianists, and she did her usual great job. Not all of the voices were of true operatic dimensions or quality. After all, it was a shoestring college effort. But none of the singers failed to bring musical pleasure to their listeners — or to enliven their roles with some pretty good acting — to include plenty of comedy.
To begin, the scenario was shifted from Vienna to modern-day Charleston. Several scenes and characters made the transformation ring true. The lead roles were all well-filled. As Adele, the sneaky chambermaid, soprano Henriet Fourie sparkled non-stop. She delivered her tricky coloratura arias with skill, sweet sound and bubbly personality; she did much to keep us laughing, too. And to think, she started out here primarily as a piano student five years ago. It's been a real treat to watch her blossom into such an accomplished vocalist.
The other soprano standout was Cameron Ulmer in the similarly demanding role of Rosalinda Eisenstein: Adele's boss, and the wife of the male protagonist. She had somewhat meatier vocal fare to contend with, like her big "Czardas" aria (a frequent feature in Viennese operetta) in her masked appearance as a mysterious Hungarian countess. She threw herself into it with assured abandon and a glorious top end. Just give her a few years to settle into her lower range and watch this gifted young lady go.
Why have I never heard Janelle Lentz's rich, molten contralto before? She sang the pants role of Prince Orlovsky, the terminally bored Russian dandy — bringing it off with burnished tone and the prescribed sense of deadly ennui.
Jonathan White, as the aristocrat-cum-jailbird Gabriel von Eisenstein, employed his versatile tenor to great effect. With a voice honed by years in one of America's best college choirs, he can make his instrument do many things — to include making the rafters ring when he feels like it, as he did here. And his inherent goofy streak made him a natural for the part.
As the egotistical and dim-witted Alfred, tenor Ben Pulsifer offered perhaps the most operatic vocal sound of the evening's men — plus many moments of clueless comedy. Dr. Falke — the cheerfully determined perpetrator of the tangled revenge scheme that comprises the work's wacky plot (par for the course in operetta) was nicely sung by baritone Joseph Ford.
Among the lesser roles, Danny Egli did well as the prison warden, and Elise Darrow pleased as Sally. But the non-singing role of Officer Frosch, the final act's tipsy jail attendant, was especially well-filled by Jim Alexander (who also has an attractive tenor voice when given the chance to use it). His slapstick antics and artfully contrived hicksville drawl kept us in stitches. Graham Bridges — who excelled as Mr. Blind, the stuttering lawyer — was slated to switch roles with Alexander in later performances. I wish I'd gotten the chance to see him (another natural clown) in action as Frosch.
The supporting chorus sounded terrific — and no wonder: many of them are members of the College's nationally recognized concert choir. The various solo ensembles went (mostly) quite smoothly — thanks to Templeton's steady conducting from his front-row seat next to the piano. It's about time a seasoned opera coach got to work with these young artists. Their efforts made for solid entertainment. I intend to monitor CofC's future operatic efforts.